Teacher Evaluations In South Carolina Questioned By Educators

In this March 30, 2012 photo, children at Woodland Heights Elementary School, along with Principal Cindy Pridgen, top left, c
In this March 30, 2012 photo, children at Woodland Heights Elementary School, along with Principal Cindy Pridgen, top left, celebrate a book release and the state's amphibian, during a special program at the school in Spartanburg, S.C. The Spartanburg Historical Association and Dr. Mary Ann Solesbee, bottom left, author of "Sal and Amanda Visit Walnut Grove Plantation," hosted the event at Woodland Heights, where 15 years ago students and faculty lobbied to make the spotted salamander South Carolina's state amphibian. (AP Photo/Spartanburg Herald-Journal, Tim Kimzey)

FLORENCE, S.C. -- State education superintendent Dr. Mick Zais could be facing a potentially angry mob of teachers Thursday night at a Florence meeting that is being held to inform the public of new educational standards, but more pressingly to get input on how educators should be evaluated.

The community stakeholder meeting to be held at Lucy T. Davis Elementary School is to allow staff from the state Department of Education to explain how they plan to implement the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) flexibility request -- a waiver the state sought from the federal government for parts of what is often called the No Child Left Behind Act.

The one outstanding piece of business in the implementation, though, is deciding the details of the new statewide educator evaluation system.

So far, educators across the state who've attended similar meetings and education advocates like the South Carolina Education Association president Jackie Hicks have been clear: They do not like the state's proposed plan, and they do not want their evaluations tied tightly to student scores on tests that can be faulty.

"Our concerns over this is that we think, evaluate me on something I have control over, of what I do in the classroom, not what's happening elsewhere," Hicks said. "Any teacher will say, "Hold me accountable for what I actually have control over," and we just want to come up with something that can be proven valid and reliable."

The proposed evaluation system, which is being beta-tested in 22 schools across the state this year, is partially a value-added model (VAM) by which teachers are evaluated on individual students' growth from one year to the next on the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards (PASS) test.

But Hicks said she worries that is faulty because, according to U.S. Department of Education data, standardized tests are only reliable 82 percent of the time; when teachers' credibility is based on a test that doesn't work 18 percent of the time, that is taken twice, a year apart, the outlook is bleak for teachers. Plus, PASS was not created to measure year-over-year growth.

"They were not set up to show growth measures. They were set up to see how a student did at a particular point in time in the classroom, so there's no before and after for a teacher's performance," Hicks said. "We need multiple instruments of measuring growth, and an old PASS test does not show where a student is after the summer when a new teacher gets them."

On top of the fact that even excellent teachers can get troubled classes of students, and many factors outside of the classroom play into test scores as well, educators who teach subjects that aren't even tested by PASS would still have evaluations tied to the test results.

SCDE spokesman Jay W. Ragley said that educators had plenty of chances to give input during stakeholder meetings at the start of the year, before the waiver was submitted in May, and that by the time the year is out there will have been 27 meetings. The key is also that this is a proposal, subject to change with additional data and feedback.

But in an October meeting in Greenville, 500 very angry teachers berated Zais with questions about the validity of a VAM evaluation system, shouting out things like, "Will you take your pay based on how our students test?"

In November in Charleston, a smaller, more subdued crowd was also disappointed that, in their opinions, their questions were filtered by department employees, particularly those about the fairness of the teacher evaluation system.

Ragley said in an email Tuesday that submitting written questions is the way these meetings have always worked so that more questions can be answered by filtering out duplicate questions.

Patrick Hayes, the director of the nonprofit education advocacy group EdFirstSC, said that in Charleston the questions were "actively censored" and "not a single concern about the evaluation plan was raised, although dozens were submitted."

The group has since filed a complaint with the State Board of Education.

Hayes and Hicks plan to hold a press conference and public meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in front of the school just before the meeting to discuss the concerns with the proposed plan and talk about the perceived censorship of questions. ___

(c)2012 the Florence Morning News (Florence, S.C.)

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